This Friday and Saturday, Milwaukee will once again be abuzz with its beloved (and Chicago-approved) quarterly art explosion, Gallery Night and Day. Dozens of galleries dotting downtown, the Third Ward, Walker’s Point, and elsewhere will open their doors and host exhibitions both respectable and provocative (check out “True Lies” at RedLine Milwaukee for the latter). But no matter how great these shows may be, none will hold a candle to a Very Special Gallery Night event that went down six years ago this week. It was a watershed moment in Milwaukee history that rivaled the Brewers’ World Series run in 1982, the christening of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition in 2001, and the Cryptosporidium outbreak of 1993. We’re talking, of course, about the Gallery Night when Milwaukee was formally introduced to Milverine.
Yes, on the evening of Friday, October 21, 2011, longtime “Too Much Metal” provocateur Fred Gillich hosted a meet-and-greet at his Third Ward showroom with the then-mysterious Milverine. It was something of a stunt, something of a marketing opportunity (Gillich had designed a Milverine T-shirt), and something of a coming-out party for a man (real name: John Hamann) who had been the subject of fevered, “what’s-up-with-that-shirtless-power-walking-guy?” speculation for over a year. Here’s a recap of the evening, originally written for A.V. Club Milwaukee:
Far from the cringe-inducing fiasco many had feared, Friday’s event was exceedingly normal, and even downright pleasant. Joined by Too Much Metal’s Fred Gillich, Hamann stood around, shot the shit with some curious strangers, answered some questions from a gaggle of cub reporters (“Do you think your newfound fame will help your fighting career?”), and signed some T-shirts. Since the coming-out party coincided with fall Gallery Night, a steady stream of well-heeled rubberneckers filed in and out of the Too Much Metal doors, many of them walking away with their very own Milverine T-shirt. (All proceeds were given to Hamann.) Throughout it all, Hamann remained low-key and friendly, and came across as nothing more than a normal, somewhat eccentric dude (he really loves his opera) who happens to kinda-sorta look like X-Men-era Hugh Jackman. (“He wouldn’t stand a chance against me.”)
Up until that point, Milverine had been something of an underground mystery man, a “local character” curiosity chuckled and marveled at by folks in the know. But, for better or worse, Gillich’s event officially turned Hamann into a Milwaukee institution: Associated Press stories, cartoons, an appearance in a Milwaukee Film Festival sponsor trailer, cat-themed Christmas cards, and, yes, even a Milverine emoji soon followed. All thanks to a Gallery Night meet-and-greet that eventually netted Hamann a cool $420. Nice.
“I do remember the vibe in the room felt like the circus had just come to town,” Gillich remembers. “A lot of curiosity and scenesters. I just wanted people to meet him and maybe make a friend and just be human to the dude instead of perceiving him as some sort of walking joke. I know he has a dog now, so that’s normal. Even Danzig has a cat. But here’s what you don’t know…”
Over the summer, the dude who started the Milverine Facebook page asked me if I would ever do a T-shirt about him. I said no. Not cool. Not unless he would get all the proceeds. And at the time nobody knew how to get a hold of him, so I kinda blew it off. About a month later (middle September), I ran into him at a stop light. I was training for a fall cross country charity bike ride when I thought to myself, “I don’t have an event planned for fall Gallery Night.” And just like that I said to myself, “I do now.”
I explained the whole Milverine thing to him, and that he would get all the proceeds from the shirt. Asked if he was interested. He said yeah. We exchanged numbers, and I said I would contact him when I got back from the ride.
So I get back in the middle of October, I call him up. No answer. Call him about 20 more times that week. No answer. I’m thinking he screwed me over. I printed all of these shirts and now I’ve got nothing for Gallery Night. Five days before the event, I’m sitting on the bench at the corner of Buffalo and Water freaking out as the dude walks past me.
I chase him down and ask him, “What the fuck…why didn’t you return my calls? I just made you a ton of shirts.” He said he was busy. Now I’m thinking he’s full of shit and he wants to bail. I ask if he still wants to do it and that I don’t have much time to prepare. I need to do a photo shoot, PR, etc., etc. He looks at me and says, “Let’s do it now.” So we did. And I finished the whole thing in 20 minutes. Mind you, he did all of this with his shirt off. So as he leaves I ask him, “You’re showing up, right ?” And he winks at me, but he can’t really wink. It’s more like a double blink. Great, this dude is bananas. What did I get myself into?
So the big night arrives, I’m super nervous all day because the entire city is coming to meet the Milverine and I may have royally screwed up. About a half-hour before the event, he strolls into the shop, looks around, and asks me if I think anyone will show up. I look at him in absolute relief and tell him, “Yeah, some people might show up.”
Back in 2011, Gillich summed up the event in a blog post. His assessment still rings true today, six years later. Long live Milverine. Long live John Hamann.
The next time you see John walking the streets of Old Milwaukee, be sure to greet him with a hello—he’d like that. The “Milverine” is more than a walking legend, a romance-novel fantasy, or a myth. John is a man. John is the Man. So do yourself a favor (be a man or a woman) and make a new friend.